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An investigation into stress and its impact on the content of dreams

By: Lucy (Y13)

“I had the strangest dream last night,” is something almost everyone has said to a friend at some point, but do these strange dreams have any meaning at all?

Stress can cause dreams to become ‘stress dreams’ which are anxiety-provoking and upsetting dreams or nightmares which can be particularly vivid or recurrent. Common stress dreams include teeth falling out, which can be associated with personal loss; being chased, which can represent a worry that the dreamer can’t escape from; missing an important event, which can be linked to a fear of missing something in waking life, for example, a flight or an exam, or being naked in public, which can symbolise feelings of inferiority or being worried about how others perceive you.

This has been supported by many studies, for example, the study on ‘Bad Dream Frequency in Older Adults with Generalized Anxiety Disorder’ (Nadorff et al, 2013). The presence of generalised anxiety disorder was significantly associated with a higher frequency of bad dreams. The researchers found that 21.6% of participants with generalised anxiety disorder experienced at least weekly bad dreams, compared with 6.4% of participants who did not suffer from generalised anxiety disorder. This demonstrates that stress and anxiety in everyday life does increase the frequency of bad dreams, therefore supporting that stress has an impact on the content of dreams.

Along with research into how stress impacts dreams, there has also been significant research into why stress appears to have an effect on dreams. One theory is that dreams help us to process and respond to stress and frightening or uncomfortable situations in our past waking lives. This helps the brain to work through these emotionally difficult situations and experiences in order to reduce the disruption they cause in our daily lives. During sleep, the brain enters a state of emotional disinhibition, which particularly occurs in REM sleep. In order to do this the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which controls emotional responses and self-awareness, among other things, becomes inactive which allows emotion to flow freely throughout dreams.

However, there has also been some contradictory evidence, for example a theory by Winson which mentions how dreams have in the past been viewed as a way for the brain to clear unnecessary or unimportant information from storage within the brain. This is known as ‘reverse learning’. This natural clearing of excess information seems less likely to be associated with stress, therefore contradicting the idea that stress has an impact on dreams.

Overall, I conclude that stress does have a significant effect on our dreams and their content. Despite there being some contradictory evidence, there is a considerably larger body of evidence to support the theory that stress does impact our dreams and their content than there is to oppose it.

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